Does “the” mean “the,” or does “the” mean “a”? That is the essence of the key question before the Supreme Court of the United States, which will hear oral arguments today in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning. Ten years ago, when President George W. Bush was in office, the late Senator Ted Kennedy argued that “the” means the definite article. Today counsel for President Obama’s NLRB will say that it does not. As Senator Kennedy’s brief makes clear, this is not an inherently partisan question, and the meaning of “the” should not depend on which party controls the White House.
At issue is the President’s authority to appoint government officials without the advice and consent of the Senate. As a default rule, the Constitution requires Senate approval for these appointments, but provides an exception: “The President shall have power to fill up vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.” U.S. Const. art. II, S.2., cl. 3.
When can the President exercise this power? In other words, what is “the recess”? Can any break within a Senate session qualify, or does the phrase only apply to the recess that occurs between sessions?
In 2004, Senator Kennedy argued that President Bush’s appointment of a judge was invalid because it happened during a 10-day break after the Senate had reconvened in January 2004 for its second session. A break within a session does not create an opportunity to exploit the Recess Clause, Kennedy argued. “An intrasession adjournment is not ‘the Recess’ to which the Recess Clause refers.” (Kennedy Amicus Brief, p. 4).
The issue arose again after President Obama made appointments to the NLRB without the Senate’s consent. The Senate was not between sessions at the time, and was holding pro forma sessions of the sort that it used in 2007 for the express purpose of preventing President Bush from making any more recess appointments. President Bush appears to have agreed that these pro forma sessions had the effect of keeping the Senate in session and not in recess. At any rate, he made no further purported “recess” appointments.
The alleged “recess” that President Obama used in January 2012 – like President Bush in 2004 – was within a session of the Senate (an intrasession recess as opposed to an intersession recess). This was precisely the kind of appointment that Senator Kennedy’s brief denounced as unconstitutional.
Back in 2004 the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected Senator Kennedy’s argument and ruled in favor of President Bush. It held that the “Senate’s break fits the definition of ‘recess’ in use when the Constitution was ratified.” Evans v. Stephens, 387 F.3d 1220 (11th Cir. 2004). In contrast, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that “the recess” does not mean just any break in proceedings, but rather is confined to the gap between sessions.
The lower courts are divided. Now it is up to the Supreme Court to decide which argument is correct: Senator Kennedy’s or President Obama’s.
Update: June 26, 2014: The Supreme Court of the United States held that the Senate is in session whenever it says that it is, so long as it has the capacity to transact Senate business.
Employees and small business owners alike in Western Massachusetts need to know whether the current controversy around the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will affect their legal rights. The source of the uncertainty is the recent decision in Noel Canning v. NLRB, which involved a dispute between a Pepsi-Cola bottling and distribution company and the union representing the plant employees, Teamsters Local 760. Filing amicus briefs in support of the company were House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, and the Landmark Legal Foundation.
The NLRB ruled in favor of the union, but on appeal United States Court of Appeals reversed the decision. Why? The court said that the NLRB’s order was void because it had no quorum. And why did the court say there was no quorum? Because it held that President Obama’s three recess appointments to the NLRB were invalid. The court agreed with the Republicans leaders who had argued that when President Obama made the appointments the Senate was in session rather than in recess.
Somewhat more absorbing than the recondite issue of when a recess is not really a recess is the question of how this became a contested issue in the first place. Spoiler alert: The answer involves large amounts of money.
Many of the people who are going after the NLRB are also attacking climate science. It’s no secret that ultra-conservatives fund climate-change denialists. To its credit, the Landmark Legal Foundation is quite candid about its opposition to the “extreme environmental groups” that spread “global warming hype” and receive Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants. Under the moniker Greenwatch, the foundation provides a handy database for concerned conservatives that “identifies the location, leadership and membership of each profiled group.”
But if you happen to be an anti-green sleuth trying to follow the money from the EPA to the Vast Climate Change Conspiracy, don’t pin your hopes on the Greenwatch database. Its keyword search couldn’t even locate any EPA grantees with the words “green” or “climate” in their names. You’d be better offer using the EPA’s own grant site or (almost needless to say) Google.
Greenwatch’s funders include the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and the Scaife Family Foundations. I learned this from Right Wing Watch, a project of People for the American Way. Presumably I could turn to Left Wing Watch or Secular Humanist Watch if I wanted to uncover the names and faces behind People for the American Way. Alternatively I could just read the organization’s Form 990, which it posts online.
But why are the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and the Scaife Family Foundation helping pay for the courtroom assault on the NLRB?
Irking the people who write the checks for the Landmark Legal Foundation are decisions like Hispanics United of Buffalo. In that case, the employer fired workers who had engaged in an online discussion about their job performances. One worker had been critical, and others responded. The NLRB sided with the employees. It ruled that the workers were “taking group action to defend themselves against the accusations they could reasonably believe [the critical employee] was going to make to management.” So in preparing to engage in mutual aid and protection, their Facebook comments constituted “concerted activity” within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act, Section 7.
The NLRB’s Hispanics United decision set “a low threshold” for concerted activity, to the chagrin of attorneys who work on the employer side of the aisle. So the company, with help from the Republican congressional leadership plus the Koch and Scaife foundations, challenged the legitimacy of the NLRB itself. Now they and their allies contend that the Court of Appeals decision in Noel Canning casts doubt on all the NLRB’s recent decisions, which they characterize as “pro-Bog Labor rulings,” e.g. Hispanics United.
So what does all this mean for workers and small business owners in Western Massachusetts? First, it’s important to bear in mind that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not cover all workers. Non-federal public employees in Massachusetts are covered by the state equivalent of the NLRA (M.G.L. c. 150E), as are some unionized employees in the private sector (M.G.L. c. 150A). So the Hispanics United and Noel Canning decisions, which interpret federal law, do not have a direct effect on these workers.
Second, most private-sector employees in this part of the world are at-will. Union members are in the minority. Employers can fire at-will employees for no reason, so long as the underlying purpose is not discriminatory or retaliatory. For my short video on this subject, just click here.
Third, focusing on situations like Hispanics United where employees are communicating online about their rights at work, several different state laws may offer varying degrees of protection. For example, the Right-to-Know Law (M.G.L. c. 111F) protects workers who work with toxic or hazardous substances. Employers that punish employees for exercising their rights under this statute could face suit in Superior Court. If workers use Facebook to discuss whether they should refuse to work unless the employer complies with the applicable regulations (450 CMR 21.00) would the employer be free to terminate them? That would be a very risky decision on the employer’s part.
Similarly, the state’s whistleblower law (M.G.L. c. 149, S. 185) is supposed to safeguard any employee who “discloses, or threatens to disclose to a supervisor or to a public body an activity, policy or practice of the employer, or of another employer with whom the employee’s employer has a business relationship, that the employee reasonably believes is in violation of a law, or a rule or regulation promulgated pursuant to law, or which the employee reasonably believes poses a risk to public health, safety or the environment.” The statute also protects employees who object to policies and practices of that kind. If at-will employees organized their whistleblowing via Facebook, could their employer fire them? Again, that would be a very risky decision.
While keeping in mind that we should never post online anything we would not be happy reading on the front page of the newspaper, we should not let the Noel Canning case chill legitimate online discussions about workplace health and safety and the environment. After all, that is precisely what the people behind the Landmark Legal Foundation and Greenwatch would like.